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Faithfulness In a COVID Summer: How United Methodist Camp/Retreat Ministries Navigated the Summer 2020 Season

04 Sep 2020 4:09 PM | Jen Burch (Administrator)

Committed, adaptable, creative, faithful, hardworking, generous, compassionate. The staff and volunteers of United Methodist Camp/Retreat Ministries (UMCRM) demonstrate so many of the qualities that define effective leaders. This season, those attributes were tested in familiar ways and new ones that stretched even the most resilient among us.

Of the nearly 170 United Methodist Camp/Retreat Ministries in the United States that offer summer camps, the majority (about 90%) did not offer traditional summer camp for the 2020 season.1 Directors, Executives, and boards of directors led painstaking decision-making processes which took into account guidance from the American Camp Association, CDC, and Association of Camp Nurses, local pandemic regulations and conditions, church and organizational values, priorities and finances, and site and staffing concerns, all filtered through prayer.

Even while sacrificing the service, fun, engagement, and revenue that are part of summer camp, many camp/retreat site staff and volunteers were able to keep on in ministry, sharing God’s good news of love and actively serving as hands and feet of Christ in new ways in their communities. Some offered virtual camp experiences online and through Camp-In-A-Box activities campers could experience from home.2 Some welcomed small family retreats to the holy grounds of camp to provide respite, connection, and experiences of God’s creation.3 Some utilized commercial kitchens to cook for hungry neighbors.4 A few sites created monastic residential communities with young adults exploring their faith and call.5 Others repurposed camp/retreat buildings as quarantine housing6 or distribution sites for food and supplies. Some were able to offer short-term day visits to help people find renewal through safely-distanced hiking, fishing, swimming, horse riding, or service projects. Many reached out to support families and children who needed to remember someone cares about them.

The few (about 12) UMCRM sites that were able to offer residential camp in the 2020 summer season did so with trepidation, thoughtfulness, and humility. In a recent UMCRM Community Conversation, several leaders from around the country shared trials, joys, and lessons learned from summer 2020. All of the UMCRM sites that operated this season took a rigorous, layered approach to COVID-19 safety protocols, including low-contact camper drop-off and pickup, increased cleaning and sanitizing of spaces and equipment, dividing campers and staff into discrete and non-mixing “cohort” small groups, daily health screening, decreased capacity and time in indoor spaces to allow for physical distancing, wearing masks, increased hand-washing, eliminating off-site activities, and adapting food service systems. This summer season demanded new inventions like creative hand-washing stations and adapted games that incorporated physical distancing. Staff created new practices, new forms, new communication and record-keeping strategies, new systems for managing the flow of people in our spaces. Counselors became experts in managing masks and hand sanitizer in addition to the usual sunscreen, appropriate footwear, and bug spray.

Some of the COVID guidance provided to camps changed as the summer progressed, so resilient leaders worked hard to stay abreast of local regulations on practices like mask-wearing and group sizes, sometimes needing to adapt operations in the middle of a session. Communication with camper families before, during, and after camp felt graver, less light-hearted than it usually would. A few Directors noted that even our youngest campers were remarkably adaptive and resilient with all the new rules and changes. Families were even more grateful than usual for their children to be able to experience camp and were supportive of all the measures our camps put in place to make it work.

One unexpected blessing that Directors reported from this strange summer was a marked decrease (and even absence) of the usual illnesses and injuries. Maybe everyone was just that much more careful this year? Maybe all of that hand-washing really does make a big difference to our health?!

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that camp, in its simplest form, still works. Even stripped of fancy off-site trips, guest speakers, specialty programs, and other bells and whistles, building community and having fun in a “sacred place apart”7 are truly the core of the camp experience. For young people who spent much of the spring and early summer quarantined at home with limited social interaction, time at camp this season felt like an especially welcome joy and adventure. For those who spent way too many hours inside in front of screens, a week of fresh-air activity in a slice of God’s beautiful Creation was especially sweet. When church and youth group activities had become virtual or nonexistent as a result of the pandemic, relevant Christian faith formation among a small group of peers was more needed than ever. For the thousands of campers who missed out on United Methodist summer camp in 2020, our ministry leaders missed you terribly, and they are hard at work to find ways to provide camp and retreat experiences for you just as soon as we can do that safely.

Leading summer camp in a “normal” season always involves late nights, early mornings, surprises, challenges, lots of preparation and stress. Those features were multiplied many-fold in this pandemic summer, and the relief and gratitude for a successful camp season cannot be overstated. When asked whether, if they could go back and decide again whether to hold summer camp, the majority of our Directors who ran camp said a resounding “yes.” They said “yes,” even knowing the financial strain of operating with limited capacity, “yes,” fully aware of the extra work and rigor and sleepless nights that were part of leadership in a COVID summer. Camp staff and volunteers do what they do because they believe in the power of the camp experience to live out God’s love for every child, to be places of safety, fun, learning, acceptance, challenge, and joy. Both those leaders who operated summer camps this season and those whose wisest choice was to remain closed, were guided by those commitments.

Many donors who contribute to Camp/Retreat Ministries have witnessed the power of camp and are committed to making sure those experiences are still around for future generations of children, youth, and families. In places where camps remained closed in 2020, many families who could afford to donate a portion of their registration fees generously gave back to support their camp through the financial loss of the summer season. Donors have stepped up to help these vital ministries to weather this unprecedented year when camp and retreats are not able to offer our usual programming and host the groups that sustain our operations. We salute the wonderful supporters of United Methodist Camp & Retreat Ministries who give time, talent, treasure, and prayer to sustain these sacred places and their dedicated staff. If you have not had the opportunity to give to your favorite camp this season, please reach out to see what their current needs are and how you can help.

The UMCRM Association brings our nationwide community together to be a resource and advocate for those amazing staff and the generous volunteer deans, board members, and others who support their ministries. Together we are learning how to serve in the midst of a pandemic, mitigating risk and caring for God’s people and sacred grounds to the best of our abilities. If you would like to join the Association or support our mission, find us at UMCRM.org.

1  Based on estimates by the UMCRM Association.

2  Camp in the Community, TN Doorstep deliveries: 1,400 kids experience church camp at home and Camp Alta Mons, VA Montgomery County camp finds way to send camp experience home are just two examples of UMCRM camps that used this model.

3  Camp Wanake, OH Wanake Camp & Retreat Center and Buckhorn Camp, CO Summer Family Camping were among the sites that provided experiences for small family groups. 

4  Camp Magruder, OR is one example: https://www.facebook.com/104908182943341/videos/273571057177382/

5  Two examples are “YAISC” at Camp Wrightwood, CA Young Adult Intentional Spiritual Community (YAISC) and the intern program at Camp Dickenson (VA) Summer Interns ​2020

6  See Alton L. Collins Center (OR) Eagle Creek facility gives COVID-19 patients space to quarantine

One of the “7 Foundations of Camp & Retreat Ministry”: http://umcrm.camp/about-us/7-foundations/

Jen Burch (M.Div.) is Association Administrator for UMCRM and edits weekly S'more Mail e-news. Jen is a former Director of several United Methodist Camp/Retreat Centers and youth-serving nonprofit organizations. She's staying physically-distanced but virtually connected from her home in Colorado.

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